REVIEW: "Footloose" - Plummer Auditorium, La Habra Theater Guild
Updated: May 7, 2019
Ariel: [Chuck mimics a fire engine's siren and grabs Ariel around the waist; she laughs] You'd never guess your daddy's a fire chief!
Chuck: You'd never guess your daddy's a minister, with them red boots...
Ariel: My daddy hates me wearing these boots!
Chuck: And you love that, don't ya?
“Footloose,” a stage show adapted from the hugely successful 1984 Footloose film, which launched the career of Kevin Bacon as Ren McCormack dancing in a warehouse in a singlet vest, is currently exploding on the live stage at The Plummer in Fullerton with exhilarating results. Directed by Brian Johnson, this remastered show, sizzling with youthful spirit, rebellion and romance, marks the close of their 2018/2019 La Habra Theater Guild season.
A Hollywood hit and cultural sensation, “Footloose,” the movie, grossed over $80 million worldwide, collecting Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in the process, and even knocking Michael Jackson’s album, “Thriller,” off the number one spot with the Kenny Loggins theme song hit. The musical was born in October 1998, adapted by Dean Pitchford from his own original Oscar-winning screenplay, along with Walter Bobbie, and opened that year at Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, running for 709 performances.
Now, this highly enriched, energetic and exuberant stage version, hewing closely to the 1984 movie, returns to Orange County, in a modern reboot by the award-winning La Habra High School Theater Guild. Boasting a plethora of toe-tapping tunes, “Footloose” is shamelessly enjoyable and is the perfect excuse for theatre-goers to “kick off your Sunday shoes” and “cut loose” this weekend. The show is rapidly approaching the end of its run at the Plummer, with three more performances between Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.
Music is by Tom Snow, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and additional music is by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins and Jim Steinman. Even without much of a hold on American pop culture, you will still recognize the principal tunes as they have been pounded out on oldies radio for decades now – “I'm Holding Out for a Hero,” which became a mid-80's pop hit, and of course, the Bonnie Tyler and Kenny Loggins music video, “Footloose,” which ran constantly on MTV back then, animates the prom scene in the Paramount Pictures film. So get your sneakers on and start scoping out abandoned factories to practice your angry dancing – “Footloose” is here through April 14th, pitting youthful zest for life against a town of autocratic goody two-shoes.
The 80's-tastic show follows Ren McCormack, a big city teen forced to move to the small farming town of Bomont, a place where rock music and dancing are deemed too sinful for its youth and is therefore banned. With senior prom just around the corner, Ren, and a host of the town's misfit teens, including love interest Ariel, the daughter of the very Reverend who enforces the ban, sets out to abolish the outdated rule so that they can lift the repression and dance till they drop.
The English Puritans, so the old joke goes, banned people from procreating while standing up because it might lead to dancing. Such unhinged panic over the link between sex and cutting a rug was the basis of the 1984 movie "Footloose," in which a big city teen finds himself in a Hicksville nightmare where dancing is not allowed. A preposterous premise for a modern-day story, one might think, until you read that the movie was inspired by the real-life example of Elmore City in Oklahoma, who had dancing banned inside city limits for 82 years.
The gifted Jeremy Percy is Ren McCormack, the snake-hipped Chicago boy exiled to small-town Bomont where sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are forbidden. All Bomont boogie-woogie has been illegal since four kids died in a car crash on their way back from a dance. So Ren, new friend Willard Hewitt (Gabriel Liron), and preacher’s daughter Ariel (Mercy Thornton – always a dazzler) sets out to get the town grooving again. Although Ren is prepared for the inevitable adjustment period at his new high school, what he isn't prepared for are the rigorous, local edicts, especially the prohibition on cavorting, or even kicking your heels up, instituted by the overbearing, local preacher, the Reverend Shaw Moore (Joshua Garberg), in a pious attempt to protect the young people from the same fate as his son.
Complicating matters, when the reverend's rebellious daughter sets her sights on Ren, her roughneck boyfriend, Chuck Cranston (Taiyo Inoue) tries to sabotage Ren's reputation, with many of the locals eager to believe the worst about the new kid. Taiyo's foursome, with Mercy, Travis (Caleb Bates) and Lyle (Cade Lunsford) in “The Girl Gets Around,” was simply amazing.
Inevitably, Ren is subjected to hazing by the yokels but turns out to be smarter, sexier and more promising than anyone in the place. Ren takes up the cause of dancing and joy, treating his groupies to a nearby honky tonk and then heroically lobbying for a high school prom. City council votes no in a patently loaded meeting, but Ren courageously calls on the good Reverend and finally pushes the right buttons.
Complete with double denim, crimped hair and revamped ’80s hits, the production bursts with stellar performances; Mr. Percy walks the tightrope between the passionate heart-throb and the frustrated new boy, all while giving a dynamic performance. With his confident tenor, sure dancing and leading boy presence, he is channeling hard the Teen-Idol appeal of Bacon in that vest – but that’s a fairly tall order for any guy. Lithe, agile and quick with a gymnast’s confidence, he just might have Bacon’s vocals beat.
But one notable change from the original is the way Jeremy Percy has approached the Kevin Bacon role of Ren McCormack. Bacon’s performance, with its earnest rebelliousness and sashaying narcissism, was very much of its time. In contrast, Mr. Percy plays Ren with a laid-back, self-deprecating charm which, using a winning off-the-cuff delivery and swagger of 80’s pop culture, reminded me somewhat of an early version of Rick Springfield.
Opposite him is the fiery, vivacious Ariel “who likes trouble.” As Ariel, the inimitable Ms. Thornton can be seen whipping off her church-length skirt to reveal a deep burgundy bodycon crush mini before singing “Holding Out For A Hero” – only narrowly being upstaged by Mr. Liron’s six-pack. When Ren is teamed with this wildcat of a preacher’s daughter, they have about the best natural chemistry between two teens I’ve seen in a long while. They totally sizzle on stage, especially in the very steamy “Almost Paradise.”
And yes, most fun of all is the bushy-headed, cowchip-kickin' young cowboy Willard, delivered with terrific goofy abandon by Gabriel Liron. It's a role without subtlety, the necessary foil to smart city-boy Ren. Willard tries to be a bully but can't, is too embarrassed to talk to the cute girl who adores him, and supposedly has no idea how to dance. Those reptilian reflexes deep in the cowboy physiology eventually kick in though. While Ren teaches Willard the finer intricacies of shimmies and moonwalks, Willard suddenly learns to swing-jive like Pinocchio. In “Let’s Hear it for the Boys,” sung by his bubbly girlfriend Rusty (Charlie Leonard), Willard gives us a scene-stealing show worthy of ”Dancing With the Stars.”
The rather maudlin storyline about the town preacher learning to love, live and (almost) busting a move, can bring a sense of reparation to some, while Mr.Garberg and Ms. Zahrndt as Rev. Moore and Mrs. Moore (Vi), respectively, adds raw emotional authenticity to the story backed by soaring deliveries — Vi’s “Learning to be Silent,” along with Ren's mother Ethel (Olivia Cooksey) and Ariel, Moore’s solo, “Heaven Help Me,” Vi’s “Can You Find it in my Heart,” and the latter two reprises by the Reverend.
Even with the dice loaded heavily against him, Mr. Garberg manages to make Rev. Moore believable and human. There's a confrontational anticlimax in Act II with Ren and Moore when the show reveals that one of the kids who died the night of the accident was the Reverend’s son. They both play it straight in the scene, establishing for one brief moment a quiet understanding of the other’s motivation and feelings.
Other outstanding cast members include Gabriel Taylor as Bickle, David Taylor as Jeter and Silas Ten Elshof as Garvin. Michaela Varvis plays a Cowgirl and is Soloist 1; Kastell Quesada is Soloist 2, Mikaela Poon is Soloist 3, and Madeline Crisp is Soloist 4 — all with exquisite voices. Savannah Clayton is Wendy Jo as well as Soloist 5, Veronica McFarlane is Urleen and Soloist 6, Hannah Rhode is Betty Blast and Daniel Connolly plays the Cop. Josiah Brimmage depicts Band Member 1 and Boy 1, Nolan De Bruijn is Band Member 2 and Boy 2, Alex Martinez plays Coach Dunbar and Makayla Davis is Eleanor Dunbar. Daniel Grilli is Wes Warnicker and Estrella Burks-Parra plays Lulu Warnicker. Davess Verdugo is Principal Harry Clark. The acting and supporting vocals were credible and on target.
Ensemble members include Jade Arbilon, Ashley Esquerra, Liam Forbes, Lukas Gaberg, Emma Garofalo, Courtney Haraguchi, Devin Hernandez, Sophia Paredes, Bailey Pepper, Aubrey Sanders, Elizabeth Anderson, Katie Christing, Taylor Garner, Nicole Gutierrez, Briana Guzman, Emily Harper, Isaac Hernandez, Brennen Logan, Hannah Mangold, Lucy Manzer, Amanda Marroquin, Ruby Muir, Dev Patel, Gracie Rhode, Dylan Spiker and Samantha Valentine.
Let’s hear it also for the band, who rocks it out through the muscular sound system, led by Music Director Vicki Schindele on Keyboard, with Charles Heiden on the second Keyboard. On Guitars: Danny Kimes and Will Errett. Dwayne Takeda is on Bass, while Bryan Frawley plays Drums and Mike Manzer handles Percussion. Conductor is Greg Haake, Costumes are by Tana Carmichael and Matt Mankiewicz is Technical Advisor. The Sets are designed by Theater 3 Honors Class at La Habra High School.
And what magic it is! One rowdy scene opening the second act with Cowboy Bob (Bavin Martin) certainly has an irresistible Yee-Haw factor. A delicious parody of 80’s pop videos — all hair-billowing wind and strutting beefcakes — set to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For a Hero” is another highlight. And the top drawer, foot-stamping, closing montage send–off, “Footloose,” is irresistible with its climactic Kenny Loggins’ title track, its precision-drilled formations, jaw-dropping solo turns and dance routines, suddenly transforming bashful wallflowers into somersaulting acrobats. The winning team of Director Johnson and Choreographer Annie Lavin, work their showy magic yet again on this simplistic, but effective material for all its worth.
Come see this Highly Recommended show before it closes at the historic Plummer Auditorium! For tickets to tomorrow night’s performance, use this convenient link: https://lhtg.booktix.com